The state of modern romantic comedy is something of a disgrace. Hollywood and the larger cinema-making world have forgotten how to make rom-coms, still serving up holiday-themed set-ups and the Lifetime hometown hunk formula.
Yet romantic comedy, done well, examines one of the most delicate strains of human experience: laughing with someone until you start to set aside guards and pretenses, because you realized you like yourself more when you’re together. A good rom-com is plot-driven and witty, depicting two characters with personal motives and injuries undergoing a plausible build-up of romance that leads to love and self-transformation.
And no one nailed the romantic comedy like Audrey Hepburn. Her expressive Bambi eyes and sensitive dramatic delivery created lovable, relatable protagonists you can’t help but root for. (No one cares if a doorknob falls in love.)
For the month of St. Valentine—and as part of its ongoing Saturday Morning Classics series— Cinema 21 is screening Audrey Hepburn films. They're all good. And here's why I think you should see each one:
Roman Holiday (1953)
I first watched this movie when I was 11 and determined two things: 1) I must go to Rome and ride a Vespa 2) Gregory Peck was very sexy. I generally wouldn’t associate with my 11-year-old self, but I stand by these statements. Hepburn plays young royalty on a goodwill tour—Princess Anne of an undesignated country. On a stop in Rome, sick of the constraints of royalty, she sneaks into the city and meets Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), an American journalist desperate for a big story. Roman Holiday was baby Audrey’s breakthrough performance, earning her the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actress. (Sat Feb 11, 11 am)
Funny Face (1957)
Fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) and Quality Magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) raid a bookstore for a photoshoot (I’m not making this up). Dick finds shop assistant Jo Stockton (Hepburn) and asks her to model for the new issue, but Jo thinks the fashion industry is an “unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics.” I’m here to foster an honest relationship with my readers, so unless you love musicals, I will say Funny Face is, um, a lot. But it’s worth watching to see Hepburn—who was a ballerina by training—dazzle as a triple threat, alongside a Gershwin score and Hollywood’s dancing king Fred Astaire. (Sat Feb 18, 11 am)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Many of you will know this iconic rom-com began as a novella by Truman Capote, and the male lead Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a fledgling novelist who lives off his married sugar mommy’s allowance, is based on Capote himself. The character of Holly Golightly, a New York socialite who refuses to name her cat and deals with the “mean reds” by window shopping at a luxury jewelry store, was based on many of the fabulous women Capote, who was openly gay even in the 1950s, befriended. Strangely, without that many changes to the story, Capote's novella shifted into a rom-com for celluloid.
Hepburn solidifies the film, moving between Holly’s playful, vulnerable, and callous tendencies with ease. She nails the bubbly, depressed girl who can’t get out of her own way. Breakfast is peppered with elegant shots, lines that make you go “oof,” and Hepburn’s wrenching original performance of “Moon River.” Capote had preferred Marilyn Monroe to star, and shame on him for it. Also, shame on director Blake Edwards for the deeply racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, Holly’s upstairs neighbor. A yellowface Mickey Rooney played a bumbling, bucktooth Japanese man screaming in broken English, an ethnic caricature whose misfortune is the ongoing joke. I think I mentally black out every time Mr. Yunioshi comes on screen. (Sat, Feb 25, 11 am)
Charade played first in Cinema 21's Hepburn rom-com showings, an excellent choice. To anyone I’m trying to convert to Hepburnism, I first show them Charade. After Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) decides to divorce her husband, she learns that he’s actually dead—and far from who she thought he was. She's subsequently pursued by three men who are all convinced she has her late husband’s stolen money. Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) offers to help Reggie out, but is he who he claims? Suspense keeps this story moving; charming banter and absurd comic bits break up the tension beautifully. While the movie house screening date already passed, you can find the Criterion DVD and the blu-ray at Movie Madness—or even stream it on Hoopla with your Multnomah County Library account.